I really enjoyed your first book When We Were on Fire and have already pre-ordered your new release.
I have been a Christian for many years but I’ve had a difficult time feeling any love for God. At the beginning of my faith journey I did read the Bible and pray. However, over about the last 10-15 years, I barely have any desire to do so. I’m more content to sit and watch television. I guess I’ve always had a distorted view of God. I grew up in a loving home; however, sometimes my parents used God to keep us in line; ie, God will not be pleased with you if you do such and such. I guess I always was afraid of Him. My desire is to love Him and want to spend time with Him, but when I try and do so, I feel cold toward Him. My husband tells me to pray about it, which I do, but my feelings do not change.
I also feel guilty watching certain TV shows and listening to secular music. I feel the most guilt about buying and collecting fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I’ve read that these things are too worldly and Christian’s have no business being concerned about them. I’ve always enjoyed fashion and am frequently complimented on my sense of style. Is this so wrong? I’m confused as to whether I’ve made an idol out of fashion.
I was in junior high when Kurt Cobain died. My classmates were in mourning. I had no idea who he was.
I could, however, sing every line of DC Talk’s song about abstinence: “I Don’t Want It.”
I can find no statistical proof that I grew up in the heyday of the “Christian Culture,” but it sure felt like it at the time. It was new. It was cool. It was shiny.
During the summers of our early adolescence, my best friend, Alissa, and I rode our bikes to the local Christian bookstore, Earthen Vessels, every other day. By fall, I’d used most of my babysitting money to amass an impressive collection of novels, albums, T-shirts, and tiny little cards with inspirational phrases on them (which I hot-glued to my binders and brought to school).
There was a thing we said all the time then: Be in the world but not of the world. It was a phrase lifted from a prayer Christ spoke over his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, and it became the bedrock on which we built our own (sanctified) version of culture. Our own rock bands and t-shirts. Our own teen romance novels and movies and journals. Our own cookware and decorative items, emblazoned with Jesus fish, engraved with crosses.
Christian became an adjective and described a certain set of products. Everything else was worldly.
“God is this, not that,” the dulcet tones of CCM seemed to say as it thrummed through my boom box. “God is here, not there,” the pastels of the Christian bookstore seemed to say as I walked down its aisles.
But of course, lines like this do not keep us safe. They keep God small.
And for a long time, the God I loved was very, very small.
The year I fell off the deep end of my life, I couldn’t read the Bible, but I did binge-watch the CW show One Tree Hill.
This was before Netflix had online streaming, and I bought myself the first season as a reward for going to therapy to deal with my faith angst, my depression, and the almost-affair I’d had that had struck the tender place in my marriage like a kind of heat lightning.
I can remember where I was sitting in our tiny apartment when I watched the scene where two of the main characters – Lucas and Peyton – are canoodling in the school library. Lucas is dating Peyton’s best friend Brooke, but has recently realized that he is in fact, in love with Petyon. It’s a classic CW love-triangle, fraught with drama, emotion and make-out sessions. Here is the scene:
“This is so wrong. Sneaking around behind Brooke’s back,” Peyton says, leaning against the bookshelf.
“Do you think that’s part of it?” Lucas replies, leaning toward Peyton.
“Part of what?”
“Us? You know – this is wrong, so it makes it feel deeper?”
And would it be sacrilege to say it was a holy moment for me, watching that pre-teen drama? It was like God was speaking into my hurt, my loss, my guilt. It wasn’t love, he seemed to say. The drama of doing something illicit made it feel deeper than it was.
It was like he was saying, Let it go. I have much deeper places for you, much truer loves.
Years earlier, during my undergrad, I’d had an incredible writing professor who was always trying to chip away at that sacred/secular dichotomy that we’d all brought with us to our tiny Christian school. She was fond of quoting Wendell Berry, who wrote: There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places. Which might also mean that there nowhere where God is not present – only places where I fail to recognize him.
The thought felt lovely to me then when she first explained it, but during the rock-bottom of my 20s, it became a lifeline. The “sacred places” of Christian Culture, of church, of the Bible itself, felt inaccessible to me in my pain. But I found Joseph Arthur’s song “In The Sun” while watching an episode of Scrubs, and for weeks the words were my best, most honest prayer.
I attended grad school where I found decidedly “secular” writers like Jo Ann Beard and Mark Doty whose words seemed to touch deeply tender places in my heart.
I could no longer access Christian Culture, but I was finding that God was everywhere, moving through the most unexpected places, drawing me back in.
Which brings me to Vogue.
I don’t generally read Vogue, not because I think there’s anything wrong with it, but because I fear it will reveal me for the fashion imposter that I am. (My “look,” if I have one, is Mom-Grunge. And not in a cool way.)
But I picked up the April edition last week with you in mind.
I sat at the table and I looked at the cover, and I asked God to be present with me in the reading of Vogue. And then I opened it up.
I don’t know a lot about fashion, Kathleen, but I know the beauty of the cable knit, and it never fails to amaze me – the crossing layers, the textures, the uniformity and care of so many knots. I know that there is something compelling about the combining of patterns and materials – of lace and silk and metal clasps – all these disparate parts working together to create something unexpectedly beautiful. There is a dress that I saw in my reading of Vogue that is so utterly red and silk-petaled that it looks like it’s made of roses.
I looked at one garment after another – some whimsical and lovely, others bold and daring and, frankly, a little odd – and I kept thinking of the Genesis story of the fall, about Adam and Eve and that act of rebellion that separated them from God and from one another, that revealed their nakedness, that knifed into their wholeness and broke them apart.
It’s the saddest story. And yet, after God has searched for Adam and Eve and found them, hidden and ashamed, after he has explained the repercussions of their decision, after all of it, there is this incredible moment of tenderness: The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)
And the word that came to mind as I looked at a white asymmetrical dress with the elegant black stripe was not wordly. It was redemption.
I kept thinking about a God who tenderly clothed our exposed brokenness…and who didn’t stop there. The creative impulse, breath of God in us, has found an expression here – in clothing, in fashion.
Here is a dress that incorporates the colors and textures of a peacock.
Here is a pair of shoes that are themselves a work of art.
Here is the love and tenderness of God, the beauty of God, the fierce color and creativity of God.
Here is sacred ground.
This is my advice, lovely, fashionable Kathleen:
Begin not where you think you should be or with what you ought to feel.
Begin where you are.
Start with Vogue. Sit down at the table. Look at the cover. Be honest. God, I don’t feel you. Meet me here in this magazine. Find me when I cannot find you.
I read the magazine cover to cover this week. And certainly there are things to bemoan (photoshopping! Impossible bodies selling impossible messages about beauty! And who knows if those clothes are fairly sourced?!)
But for all of its faults, I can tell you, Vogue glimmers with the hidden beauty of God.
An article about love and grief written by the second wife of a man who lost his family in that devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 had this holy truth about the problem of pain: “Today he wonders at the contradictions in a world that can include both an earthquake and the improbable conception of twin boys. Andy says he has reconciled his powerless, his lack of control, not only over history and calamity, but also over loving again.”
It is a deeply eloquent statement, and without ever saying the word “God,” it pointed me back to the paradox of pain and love and the hand of him who holds us in both.
In another article, an author recounts her history with anxiety with stunning honesty and writes about the house that healed her – a place where she was “one in a line of many refugees who had showed up at the house in a fragile state and found safe haven.” Grace. Ministry. Hospitality. Love. I read that article, and it could have been a devotional piece in some women’s Bible, leading me toward the safe haven of God’s goodness; inspiring me to become that place for others.
I was struck by a quote from designer Ronald van der Kemp about his work: “I want to make pieces where you can see that someone has really touched them. I know when clothes aren’t made with love,” he said. And I think that there is maybe no better or more biblical mission statement for a church or ministry or businesswoman or teacher.
I paged, slack-jawed, through a portrait series of women by Annie Leibovitz: photographer Sally Mann in her studio, covered in both dirt and light; Malala, with her Mona Lisa smile; dancer, Misty Copeland, all beauty and strength as she stands en point in an empty room. Each woman imbued with the breath of God so clearly that I could almost believe that this holy breath flows through my lungs too.
Even a L’Oréal advertisement, big and bold over an airbrushed model, reminded me of a poignant truth: You’re worth it, it said, and it may be a marketing slogan, but is also the heart of the Gospel – that we matter to God. That we matter to the world. That we matter. Period.
By the time I flipped the last glossy page of that heavy fashion magazine, I felt like I had encountered God in a new way. Like I had glimpsed a bit of that holy heart that I had never seen before.
If you need a permission slip, I’ll give you one now. Kathleen has permission to read Vogue instead of the Bible for as long as she needs to. You can show it to that guilty, church-girl part of your brain that feels like God is waiting to strike you down if you step out of that tiny box that Christian Culture drew in the sand.
“There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him,” Frederick Buechner once wrote.
Which I take to mean that God is bigger than the lines, bigger than your numb heart, big enough to reveal himself to you…even in a magazine.
Maybe especially there.
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